Dear Ophelia | Runner-up, VU Short Story Prize

I see body bags every day. That same ugly, non-porous, blue plastic becomes so monotonous, so easy to forget the contents, negating countless lives. The unzipping takes me back to childhood days spent camping. You hear it? That early morning surfacing from the tent, tearing the mosquito netting open to eagerly set out for a new day of adventure and exploration. Easy, carefree days.

You’re inside this body bag, dear Ophelia Starr. A 27-year-old transgender woman. Suicide by hanging. Was it bullying that led to your premature death? Harassment? Years of abuse? Murdered for merely being transgender? I know, existing as a queer person is an extreme act. We’re deviants: immoral, evil, misunderstood, confused, sick. Hated. For nothing more than who we are, who we love, who we fuck, how we live our lives. We can pass as many laws as we want to ensure our equal marriage rights and still, none of it matters. There will always be that feeling of terror that grasps me tight the moment I go to kiss a friend goodbye, hug them in support, or attempt to hold hands. Why should I have to think of myself as brave anytime I dare to kiss another man?

I am hypersensitive to the smiles of the pathologists as they scribble their notes, the technicians as they prepare you for your autopsy. Every joke or mumbled word – is it a joke at our expense? You’re one of mine. None of them know. If they did, would their behaviour change?

The forensic science mortuary is a cold, barren place with worn features, much like a surgical theatre, but old, and not quite sterile. The floor is pale-blue painted cement in dire need of repair, worn down by daily scrubbing and running water. The edges have flaked away revealing the ugly brown and yellow beneath, as if years of past disease is slowly emerging. Stainless steel benches sag in the middle and create rust-stain drips at the end of each day. The lighting overhead is severe, fluorescent white and flickering. I glimpse the pathologist using a female body chart. My faith in humanity lifts. You may not have had any gender affirmation surgeries, but he still sees you as a woman. Go, doctor!

I am unsettled by the stares as we undress you: a closer look here by a technician, a glance down there by the photographer. A dead trans person doesn’t come into the mortuary often, but accurate statistics are hard to record with standard coronial means. Worldwide, almost 50 trans people were killed last year, and that’s just the ones we know of. That’s 50 transgender people (disproportionately women of colour) who died unexpectedly or violently. Murdered for being trans. Why are transgender people so hated? I’ve claimed that hate for myself, kind of like a mantra. It’s everywhere. I hate, and no-one can hate more than me. No-one can hate me more than I do. Every day I have to fight to be who I am in a world more concerned with who I love and where I pee. It seems that some people would rather see us dead than existing.

Suicide by hanging is the most common method these days: so easy almost everyone is doing it. We take the ligature you’ve used – we photograph it, measure it, bag it. We store it in the freezer until the state coroner approves of its destruction. We record your ligature marks as well. Three shots. Click. Click. Click. I’ve tasted your pain and felt how easy the way out seems. Not the act, the temptation. How it grasps at the darkest parts of your mind and suffocates you. No kind deed or happy face or friendly grin makes its way through that jumbled spider web of black; hatred so intensely self-destructive.

The pathologist is busy measuring and describing the many scars littered over your body. On your arms and upper thighs are small slashes, mirror images on your left and right. The freshest are on your wrists, but they aren’t deep enough to have brought you here. Did cutting make you feel alive, Ophelia? Make you feel something? I understand. I’ve been a ‘cutter’ since I was twelve years old, but if I lift my shirt, you’d see other scars too: surgical scars that helped salvage my life. Two identical scars curve in from my armpits to my sternum – double bilateral mastectomy with chest reconstruction. A large horizontal 20-centimetre scar crosses underneath my belly, just above my pubic line – total hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy. Ten years ago, I was living a completely different life. I was approaching my twenty-first birthday, working in an aged-care hostel, and at the beginning of what would become a five-year relationship of relative heteronormativity. I was also a girl.

The doctor finishes his external examination, and now it is my turn. I lift your slim body so I can shove the body block underneath your shoulders. This gives us extra room to enable easier manipulation of your organ block. I pick up my scalpel and run the blade from behind your ears, around your neck to meet at the top of your sternum, then down in one seamless line to your pubic mound – the classic Y incision.

I often wonder if my self-harm was a consequence of latent gender dysphoria – was yours? I was male on the inside. It was a feeling that I hadn’t come to accept, or believe could be fact. Could I have been destroying a body I felt so detached from, attempting to make it feel real? I was carrying a weight that I’m sure rings familiar with anyone who has borne the confines of a closet. My ‘closet’ was an identity I’d learned, not one that was tolerable. The hormones were wrong, my gender was wrong. My body was just so wrong. It had bits I couldn’t associate with, and it did things that terrified and disgusted me. It’s not like I ‘felt like a boy in a girl’s body’, not ultimately. This is my body, and for the most part, I’m happy with it. I can’t hate my body because this is who I am. This is what I’ve got, and it’s all I have. I can’t go back to hating myself …

I’d fumbled through adolescence as a shy, quiet teen who shrinks later described as ‘… a patient who has a striking appearance which is in contrast to his mild self-effacing manner,’ and discussing my ‘… non-gender stereotypic behaviour.’ Getting hairy, growing a beard, and having a deep voice made sense. It was meant to happen – it just took twenty-seven years.

I remove a section of your rib cage with a pair of standard variety tree loppers and cut the connective tissue to release the chest plate, exposing your internal organs. The pathologist leans in for a cursory glance. Nothing unusual. We didn’t expect there to be: you hadn’t lived a life long enough to acquire natural disease. After I cut away the diaphragm, I dissect around the neck and remove your organs in one block – everything to the pelvis. You have a prostate I will have to remove.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that coming out as trans immediately cultivates all sorts of unwanted and personal intrusions: is it a sexual thing? Does that mean you’re gay, or are you straight? Do you like boys or girls? Are you pre-op or post-op? What have you got downstairs? And my favourite: if you don’t have a penis, you’ll never be a real guy. Thanks, random dude at ‘queer safe space’ nightclub. Historically, gay people have faced just as much misunderstanding and judgment as the transgender community, but trans people often feel ostracised in queer safe spaces, as if we still don’t belong. Much of the discrimination I encounter comes directly from the gay community: the opinion that my choice to be male doesn’t make it so because I will never have a penis. It was never a choice. I didn’t one day decide to be a boy. It was simply the next step of my existence, and it was always going to happen.

They say it’s like saying goodbye to a daughter, but gaining a son; mourning the death of a sister, but welcoming a brother. It’s not that straightforward. I didn’t go anywhere. I haven’t changed. I’m still the same person on the inside. My memories haven’t changed, and others haven’t lost theirs either. It’s simply physical. And psychological. So they can no longer say ‘she’. Don’t ‘dead name’ me. Don’t laugh when I remind people of my preferred name and pronouns. It’s easy. I am no longer a niece; I am nephew, grandson, brother. When I was born, my family wished for a happy, healthy baby. Above all, it was my good health they wanted. There were no concerns as to whether I was a boy or a girl, so why should it matter so much now? It’s still about my health. Whether or not people want to believe that – it’s not up to them. My gender has nothing to do with anyone else. This is. Not. About. Anyone. Other. Than. Me.

Behind the scars on my chest and beneath the thick stubble on my face, she still stares at me from beyond the mirror. She’s there at my weakest. I can see her even if to everybody else she has faded … She grows around me like the darkness encroaching light, forming shadows like acid swirling about. When I am at my darkest, it’s her in there controlling my reactions and emotions. Wonder why I’ll never clean shave? They say I killed someone, but she’s still here. I can’t undo a lifetime of conditioning so easily. It’s an ever-changing process that I am still battling. Life doesn’t change. It doesn’t stop and wait for us to start again or to catch up. We’re barely struggling for the surface as it is before another wave hits. Keep on paddling. Someone needs us. Dear Ophelia, did you drown?

There is nothing unusual about your organs. They are of average weight and colour range – the cause of your death will be asphyxia due to hanging.

My Mum said the bottom fell out of her world when I told her about my desire to transition. I was her first girl. She said she would lie in bed at night crying, lost in a combination of nausea and hopelessness. She was convinced it was the worst thing that could happen to her as a parent. When she got over the shock and had time to think, she said it made sense. From the onset of puberty, she felt something was slightly off-centre with me, and now, here was an answer. She’s right. I was fine as a girl until the changes began. I couldn’t wrestle with my brothers any longer. I couldn’t run around in the summer heat without a shirt on because suddenly it was considered inappropriate. It wasn’t seen as right that I was more interested in collecting wrestling cards or playing army games than playing with dolls and looking pretty. And boys started treating me different, too; that was the worst. I wasn’t different to them, but now, through no fault of my own, I had become foreign, alien. My Mum said to me, ‘Jaz,’ and she used my chosen name. She said, ‘Jaz, it’s up to me to set the tone – if I treat you as normal then so will others. This is how you were born, and gender identity is something you can be sure of at any age. You, my son, are the same person you have always been – my funny, talented, creative, adorable, sometimes messy, child.’ She does fear for my journey through life. Will I be safe? Will I be accepted and treated well? Will I find love? I don’t know. I can’t alleviate her fears. Is anyone ever guaranteed these things in life?

Stitching your body is cathartic. Putting back together that which I had laid open for the forensic world to see. Your loved ones won’t suspect your organs have been inspected, dissected, and stuffed back into your body cavities in plastic bags to prevent leakage. The funeral directors will dress you in something high-necked to disguise the ligature mark, and the incision I used to remove your brain hides within your long dark hair. You will look beautiful one last time. Will you have family and friends at your funeral to notice?

Mum’s heart has broken so many times because neighbours, friends, even family, have rejected me. She said I have experienced more pain and struggle in my youth than most adults will in their lifetime and that there’s no shame in being me. My mum. Insert smiley emoticon. My sisters just wanted to fix things for me until they realised I wasn’t broken. The rates of suicidal ideation and suicide among trans people are very high, but drop dramatically when they are accepted for who they are. How could any family member or friend ever risk that? Surely having your loved one alive is much better than going through the heartache of losing them? Loved ones, perhaps; strangers, though?

A memory sticks out. A man confronted me in a supermarket once, asking if I was a boy or a girl, as if he was owed the answer. The vein in his forehead pulsed, like this deviance from the norm might explode his brain if he didn’t get an explanation right then. I could see the pores on his nose, the acne scars of adolescence over his chin. I remember his smell of stale cooking oil and general grease; his breath contaminated by cigarettes. I recoiled, muttering a hesitant, ‘No.’ I didn’t fit into his distinctions of male and female so easily. My palms were sweaty, my heart thumping. I’m not brave. It’s an all-too-familiar question. People don’t want to know whether we’re boys or girls, they want to know what’s between our legs. If I have a cunt, why am I so butch? Maybe all I need is the right man? But if I have a cock, I need to man up and not be such a pussy.

The ability to move on and get over it has been lost on me since I was a kid. I mull. I rewind conversations, again and again, the blame piling further and further on top of me until it is so transformed that I am the one who’s asked for it. I’ve brought that abuse on myself for merely being. It’s my fault, and I’m not brave. These days I have the privilege of not being misgendered. The worst I get is a, ‘cut your fucking hair’. Why? So I can be like everyone else? Fuck you: I’m limited edition.

Your clothes are stored in a blue property bag. I move them over to a clean tray with another ugly, non-porous, blue plastic body bag. I drag you over onto it too. Did you wear your favourite outfit to die? Did you even care that much in those last days, those last hours? Would someone recognise the absence of that cute sweater you’d worn down to a thread? Was there such a person in your life?

Ophelia, I’m trying to love a beautiful human. Her body confidence is awe-inspiring. I think I love her so bad, though I never told her. She loves me, I know it – but she doesn’t know me. How can anyone when I hardly knew myself? She is my everything, but I could never admit to that. We only want what we can’t have, right? I’m a coward. I can’t love someone without fear – that’s what it comes down to. I could love her, if only I were brave enough.

This is not somewhere I have ever been, or anywhere I will ever be again. Who we are as people is defined between our ears, by grey matter, not by genitalia. Physically and mentally I am in the happiest place I have been. As each day passes, my confidence grows, and with it, strength to be who I really am, and that’s a beautiful feeling. If I could go back, I wouldn’t change my journey, because changing that would change the essence of who I am, but perhaps some words of solace for the darkest of nights, words too late for you, Ophelia: You’re not weird, you’re not crazy, and these feelings, they won’t go away. Don’t listen to the people in your life that want to make you feel worthless. Don’t listen to the people who want to tell you who you should be. Listen to yourself. Only you know how you honestly feel. And yes, at times it will be tough – out on that ledge, exposed to the world – but you need to be yourself. That’s where your happiness lies. You are better than you think you are. You are great, and people love you for you.

Did anyone love you Ophelia, your cold naked body exposed for the room to see? Can you say anything in death that you hadn’t been able to in life? I wish your death could be the change the world needs, but the truth is, your whole life will be reduced to a report and a photo in a file, your organs to be sampled in a pot with a label. You, just a body on a trolley: a statistic on suicide.

I zip up the body bag.

Goodbye, Ophelia.




Erik Garkain

Erik Garkain is a queer transgender writer, forensic mortuary technician, 4×4 explorer, and body modification aficionado from South Australia. He has just finished an advanced diploma of professional writing and is dedicated to weaving stories around marginalised individuals and social outcasts.

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